Thursday, October 04, 2007

AFF Filmmaker Interview: Victor Fanucchi

AFF is proud to be hosting the World Premiere of Victor Fanucchi's hilarious college satire Beyond the Pale. Read Toddy Burton's interview with Victor to learn more about Vladimir Nabokov, no-wildness policies, and modal modes

How did you get started with this project?

The idea for "Beyond the Pale" started with my obsession with Vladimir Nabokov's novel Pale Fire. I had an idea It was going to be a fake documentary by an outsider, failed academic and unreliable narrator trying to force more established Nabokov scholars to accept his strange interpretation of Pale Fire, which is in real life a novel about an academic imposing his bizarre interpretation onto a work of literature. It might not have gotten past the daydream stage if I hadn't told my friend Jeff Wise about it, who just happened to be obsessed with Pale Fire too and was reading the Brian Boyd book about Pale Fire. Jeff contributed a lot of ideas for the script and would read drafts and tell me when I was getting too far out there. Of course, I didn't have the money or personal contacts to get permission from the Nabokov estate to use Pale Fire in any way. I had been making sensible legal arguments in my head about how it would be okay not to get permission, but finally I faced up to the fact that even a legal gray area could be a nightmare for the movie down the line. And so, at the 11th hour, the novel that the movie's about became a parody of Pale Fire called Pale Queen of Night, and the author in question a composite of Nabokov and a couple others. And it was all for the better, since I'd previously been unable to stop myself from loading up the script with endless Pale Fire details. Making it a fictional work allowed me to step back a bit and concentrate on my story instead.

You’ve written and directed award-winning shorts as well as edited award-winning trailers, but this is your first feature. How did you make the transition?

I decided to make the leap from shorts to features years ago. Unfortunately the people with the money to make the features weren't aware of it. I didn't want to be pushy. The time I spent editing trailers helped me a lot actually. While writing a script I think about which scenes would make it into the trailer. Are there enough of those trailer-worthy moments? Hopefully yes.

Beyond the Pale represents a clear understanding of the weirdness of academia, particularly endless PhD programs. How dud you manage so successfully to represent this world and to create such successful satire?

Teaching screenwriting and production at a university is very different than being a scholar of film history and theory. I'm not an academic, but I'm married to one and I'm surrounded by them at work. I get to call them "colleagues," which is great for a wannabe like me. So there are some details of the academic world I passively absorbed over the years, some things I got from research, and others I just made up. Wild inaccuracies. For instance, in the world of make-believe, student-professor affairs happen all the time, while in reality they're extremely rare. If they were commonplace, they wouldn't be so titillating and therefore wouldn't pop up in every single novel or movie about academia, mine included.

Central to your film is the fictional writer J.D. Nochpynne and his novel, Pale Queen of Night, both of which resonate as so real. While characters argue about Nochpynne’s identity and the book’s different meanings, it’s almost as if this novel actually exists. What was your process of conceptualizing this work?

Whatever reality there is to Nochpynne's Pale Queen of Night, it's stolen from Nabokov's Pale Fire. Did I mention that I love Pale Fire? And Nochpynne is a certain reclusive author's name rearranged phonemically. The initials J.D. are stolen from the other big recluse in 20th century American lit. So it's a big rip-off. Although I did spend a lot of time coming up with a crazy elaborate symbology for Pale Queen of Night that would parody the complex chess and butterfly references in Pale Fire. Of course there was no place in the movie for any of that, so that was mostly time wasting.

Where did you find the cast?

A friend of mine, Matt Nix, read the script and immediately thought of Hayes Hargrove, who had been in a short of Matt's several years ago. Hayes' Myspace page listed "modal modes" among his interests. Based on that and Matt's recommendation and Hayes' reel, I offered him the lead role over the phone. Then I worried that we might not get along in person, like a bad pheromone interaction or something, but we got along great as it turned out. And that's very fortunate, since he lived in our guest room for almost a month during rehearsals and the shoot. The other casting decisions were made by a computer, which turned out surprisingly well.

Any wild on set stories?

I enforced a strict no-wildness policy on the set. Even so, there was a little on-set wildness when we shot the frat-party scene. Two young women approached my assistant director and asked if we needed a girl-on-girl makeout session in the background. Of course, Danny the AD said, "No way!" and escorted them out of there. You will definitely not see them making out in the background in the scene where Anna comes to the house looking for Sasha.

What's next for you?

There's an excellent action/suspense/dark comedy script I'd like to direct called "Afghan Picnic," written by Jeff Wise. It's got dangerously high levels of irony, even by the strictest definition of irony, where the audience knows something the main characters don't. A pair of young Americans in Afghanistan are taken for a ride by their mistranslating guide, who's telling them one thing in English and another thing entirely in the Wakhan dialect of his fellow tribesmen. Our young adventurers think they're travelling to the site of lost archaeological ruins, while their guide is using them in a local power play, talking them up as army sergeants capable of calling in air-strikes with their mobile phone. It's funny, it's got guns, and it's conceived to be shot on a very low budget. And I've got a couple other scripts I'm writing, and there's a fairly high-concept half-hour comedy idea Hayes Hargrove and I are developing, getting it ready to spring on everyone! We're sitting on a comedy bombshell.

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